All cities have physical barriers that divide neighborhoods and social classes. In Syracuse, one of the biggest is Interstate-81.
On the east side you have the area known as “The Hill.” There, Syracuse University and its affiliated hospitals and research centers have fostered growth and prosperity.
On the west side of the highway, things aren’t quite as rosy. The west side is where most of the city’s 1,600 vacant houses are located. It’s also, significantly, where the city’s downtown lies.
This highway, like so many of its type, was built as an urban renewal project in the 1950s. And many of the neighborhoods surrounding it have never quite recovered.
Now, Interstate 81 is itself showing signs of age. And many in the community say it’s time to remove it.
“To increase accessibility to [The Hill] we need a better transportation solution,” said Sandra Barrett of the Onondaga Citizens League, a local nonprofit civic group. “We need to remove the elevated highway that just depresses real estate values in the area.”
The Syracuse Metropolitan Planning Council says that the elevated portion of the highway, the part near downtown Syracuse, is the most in need of repair. The viaduct will reach the end of its useful life in 2017. There is already an arrangement in place with local contractors for 24-hour emergency repair.
Syracuse is in the early stages of discussing what should be done with I-81. SMPC and the New York State Department of Transportation have embarked on a public input process they are calling The I-81 Challenge, asking local residents to weigh in on the problem. Thus far, proposals have included a Big-Dig-esque tunnel, relocation, rebuilding, and, finally, teardown and replacement with a street-level boulevard.
Some influential community leaders are coming out early on behalf of the highway-to-boulevard proposal. The most prominent of them is Van Robinson, president of the Syracuse Common Council (the city government’s legislative branch). For years, Robinson has been beating the drum for a teardown.